After the Paris massacre: the lessons for fighting terrorism

Despite a plethora of quite fixable problems, Americans seem increasingly inclined just to look the other way

This is one entry in a series on the murders at Charlie Hebdo. Find more articles on the issue in the right column (or on the bottom for mobile or tablet readers).

The days after the terrorist killings in Paris have been a time of sorrow, solidarity and condemnation. The principle that cartoonists and writers should be free to express themselves without risking death for their opinions is a fundamental one, and that principle brought millions of people onto the streets of Paris and other French cities over the weekend. But beyond the affirmation of the freedom of expression and the rejection of terrorism, the attacks also call for reflection about what we can learn from these attacks and how to make similar atrocities less likely in the future.

There was nothing surprising about the Paris attacks. They were textbook operations of contemporary Islamist terrorism, carried out against predictable targets by people already known to the authorities for their involvement in violent extremism. A recent study of jihadi terrorism in Europe highlighted a trend towards targets involving writers or artists deemed to have insulted Islam, Jewish targets, and military forces; substitute police for military and the agenda of the Paris jihadists is there. The study also found that knives and guns were becoming more common than bombs as jihadist weapons. The principal attackers in Paris, the Kouachi brothers, were trained and backed to some degree by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group that has most consistently engineered attacks against Western targets in recent years.

There was nothing surprising about the Paris attacks.

The trajectory of the terrorists is entirely characteristic of earlier patterns of Western Islamist radicalisation (some analysts say that fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq display a different and less predictable profile). Indeed, we know a good deal about their evolution because the “Buttes-Chaumont network” from which they sprang was not only familiar to authorities, but also much studied by French researchers. The attackers’ background was delinquent or criminal more than religiously observant. Amédy Coulibaly, who seized and killed hostages in a Jewish supermarket, had earlier had a penchant for posing on beaches with girls in bikinis. Chérif Kouachi’s radicalisation began under the influence of a self-taught imam who had been expelled from a local mosque, and it took off when he was imprisoned along with Coulibaly and fell in with the convicted terrorist Djamel Beghal.

The empowering appeal of radical Islam to disaffected and directionless youths is well attested to, and the violent ideology of jihadism has caused devastation in much of the Middle East as well as inspiring attacks in the West. It is a complex and deep-rooted problem; while the religious framework is important, it would be wrong to see it in simply theological terms. As Olivier Roy and others have shown, the turn to jihadism in the West is often part of a generational rebellion among a section of Muslim youth, influenced by older religious preachers who are often self-appointed outsiders. To the extent that one can speak of a Muslim community in Western countries, recruitment takes place more in rejection than through the complicity of established leaders.

The empowering appeal of radical Islam to disaffected and directionless youths is well attested to.

Moreover, it is clear that a narrative of Muslim victimisation is part of the process of radicalisation, and measures that draw dividing lines between French (or other European) Muslims and others are only likely to play into it. Of course, it is obviously true that cooperation with and attention to Muslim community leaders is an essential part of an effective counter-radicalisation strategy.

We should also be wary of calls for new and expanded police powers. Given the track record of the attacks’ perpetrators, there is no doubt that they could have been targeted for surveillance under existing French legal authorities. Instead, it seems that surveillance against the Kouachi brothers was dropped as resources were diverted to tracking foreign fighters returning from Syria – a warning that shifting trends in threat assessment should not blind us to more established and persistent risks. There may be a case for stepped-up information-sharing within the EU. However, the wider call for more sweeping powers to combat the terrorist threat seems driven first of all by a political desire to be seen to be taking action. Measures adopted in haste are likely to lead to over-reaching and may prove less effective than better coordination and application of existing procedures. In the case of France, the clarification of intelligence powers and procedures for democratic accountability remain more of a priority than does greater scope for surveillance.

Cooperation with and attention to Muslim community leaders is an essential part of an effective counter-radicalisation strategy.

There is a certain irony in the fact that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has declared France to be “at war with terrorism”. The US war in Iraq, which provided the justification for Chérif Kouachi’s first foray into Islamism, was of course presented as part of President Bush’s own “war on terror”. We must hope that Valls’ rhetoric is not meant literally, and does not presage a resort to a more military response following the US precedent. Looking across the troubled region of the Middle East and North Africa, it is hard to believe that further military action can deliver any solution to the problems of state breakdown, polarisation and failure of border security that facilitate violence at home and abroad. Instead, what is needed is an integrated programme that would begin to restore legitimate, effective state authority – but that is a task for years to come, and in the meantime counter-terrorism will remain an effort at limiting and containing violence and radicalisation, not eliminating them.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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